On Friday morning, three days after the close of her trial, a Bristol County, Massachusetts, judge found 20-year-old Michelle Carter guilty of involuntary manslaughter — ruling that she recklessly encouraged her emotionally vulnerable boyfriend to kill himself three years ago.
But what effect will the decision have on future criminal cases in the United States? While some legal experts were reportedly surprised at the ruling, at least one believes its impact will be negligible.
“There have been many cases involving people either encouraging or providing assistance to someone who then commits suicide,” says Larry Cunningham, a former prosecutor and vice dean at St. John’s University School of Law in New York, who is unconnected with the case.
“What is really unique about this case is so many of the communications exchanged between Michelle Carter and her boyfriend … were electronic,” Cunningham says.
Carter went on trial earlier this month for involuntary manslaughter after being accused of urging her then-boyfriend, Conrad Roy III, to take his own life in July 2014.
Roy, 18, was found dead in his pickup truck in a store parking lot after inhaling carbon monoxide from a portable generator and water pump.
In his decision Friday, Judge Lawrence Moniz found that Carter acted illegally in a phone call with Roy, who was wavering during his suicide, when she told him get back into his truck. Moniz also noted that Carter did not notify anyone else at the time.
Cunningham tells PEOPLE that he expects that Carter’s lawyers will appeal Friday’s ruling soon after her sentencing, which is scheduled for Aug. 3.
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“In this particular case, the defendant’s action were limited to words, so I suspect it will be a very close case on appeal,” Cunningham explains. “The reason this case has gotten so much attention is because we live in an era of electronic communications.”
Matthew Segal, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, condemned the decision soon after it was announced — saying it will imperil free speech statewide (an echo of Carter’s defense attorney, who had unsuccessfully argued her texts were protected speech).
“If allowed to stand, Ms. Carter’s conviction could chill important and worthwhile end-of-life discussions between loved ones across the Commonwealth,” Segal said in a statement.
Martin Healy, chief legal counsel to the Massachusetts Bar Association, also issued a statement in reaction to the finding, noting that it “will have national implications and is a clarion call that seemingly remote and distant communications will not insulate individuals from heinous acts that could rise to the level of criminal culpability.”
Healy capped off his statement by saying Carter’s fate “was sealed through the use of her own words.”
“The communications illustrated a deeply troubled defendant whose actions rose to the level of wanton and reckless disregard for the life of the victim,” Healy said.
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Reached moments after the verdict, Cunningham tells PEOPLE he believes Judge Moniz rendered the appropriate ruling.
“I thought the judge’s verdict was very thoughtful and detailed, and he placed emphasis on the fact that Carter created this situation and then did nothing to stop Roy from hurting himself,” Cunningham says. “The appellate court will struggle with this one.”
Cunningham says the conviction is not “precedent-setting” because the case is too “unique” to have far-reaching effects.
“The verdict was based on the unique facts of this case,” he says. “This was not just one offhanded remark — she sent many texts and many communications over a period of time, all to encourage this person to take his own life.”
Cunningham anticipates the appeal process could take between one and two years.
Carter faces up to 20 years in prison. (She waived her right to a jury trial the day before opening statements.)
Suicide Prevention: What to Know
Experts say some common warning signs of suicide include discussing a desire to die or feeling anxious or hopeless, like a burden, or trapped or in pain; withdrawing from others; extreme mood swings, including anger and recklessness; and abnormal sleep patterns (sleeping too much or too little).
Many suicides have multiple causes and are not triggered by one event, according to experts, who underline that suicidal crises can be overcome with help. Where mental illness is a factor, it can be treated.
Reaching out to those in need is a simple and effective preventative measure, experts say.
If you or someone you know is showing warning signs of suicide, consider contacting the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK, texting the Crisis Text Line at 741741 or seeking help from a professional.